Knights sweep weekend in Morgantown
There are many factors in play when a team goes on a long winning streak — it needs consistency, hard work and even a little bit of luck.
The Rutgers tennis team has been more than lucky over its eight-match winning streak and continued its success this weekend with a pair of 6-1 wins over Pittsburgh and West Virginia in Morgantown, W.Va.
"West Virginia had a large crowd and it was their senior day, but nothing silences the crowd better than solid play," said head coach Ben Bucca. "And we've never lost to Pittsburgh in the four years that they have agreed to play us in Morgantown."
The Scarlet Knights (13-4, 5-2) undoubtedly improved their conference seed with five straight Big East wins after starting conference play with losses at Louisville and Marquette. Rutgers did not let the hardships of back-to-back road matches stall their drive this weekend to the Big East Tournament.
"Winning our past several matches definitely helps us in the Big East," said freshman Stefania Balasa. "If we can continue the streak for the rest of the season we have a chance at a good seeding at the Big East Tournament at the end of the month."
Rutgers enjoyed success this season because of its ability to pile on singles victories throughout the lineup. The bottom half of the Knights' lineup — comprised of Balasa, junior Maryana Milchutskey and freshman Vanessa Petrini — each earned two singles wins in Morgantown.
"We've had exceptional performances down the lineup, especially from [Balasa and Petrini]. They have just played exceptionally strong tennis," Bucca said. "That strength at the bottom of the lineup is one of the elements that has really made this team unique."
Balasa proved to be a rare talent, dominating right out of the gate with a 16-3 singles record as a rookie. But her best quality is her ability to adapt to different doubles partners almost every week and still maintain a high level of success.
"Stef has only lost a few singles matches all season and really improved in doubles," Bucca said. "She is definitely showing the talent, skills and work ethic to have an exceptional four-year career."
The Knights' constantly changing doubles lineup featured Balasa and junior Morgan Ivey in the No. 3 slot for the first time this weekend, when it won, 8-4, against Pittsburgh and defeated the Mountaineers, 8-6.
Junior Jennifer Holzberg and senior captain Amy Zhang continued their strong play, winning both matches at No. 1 doubles, while the new No. 2 team of Petrini and junior Leonora Slatnick fell to West Virginia, but defeated Pittsburgh, 8-5.
"We've been working on our doubles strategy a lot in practice," Balasa said. "Switching partners is becoming easier since we all have much better chemistry on court with each other now."
Rutgers returns to action next weekend with two more Big East road matches against Georgetown and Villanova. The Knights are in the midst of the toughest part of their schedule, but away matches no longer faze the team, Bucca said.
"Being on the road all the time is difficult, but we talk about it up front as a team," he said. "We plan for so many obstacles, like unfamiliar surfaces, fans rooting against you and dealing with the fatigue of traveling. We just use our team camaraderie to bounce right back from their advantages."